The Detroit United Railway, an interurban streetcar line, ran up and down Woodward Avenue in the early 1900s, delivering autoworkers to their plants and back to their suburban communities.

The Detroit United Railway, an interurban streetcar line, ran up and down Woodward Avenue in the early 1900s, delivering autoworkers to their plants and back to their suburban communities.

Photo provided by Leslie Pielack

Before the cars came the road

Local historian pens book on origins of Woodward Avenue

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published August 6, 2018

 Leslie Pielack, director of the Birmingham Museum and a historical consultant on various projects, released her new book about the Saginaw Trail in July.

Leslie Pielack, director of the Birmingham Museum and a historical consultant on various projects, released her new book about the Saginaw Trail in July.

Photo provided by Leslie Pielack


BIRMINGHAM — When it comes to the Woodward Avenue corridor, a lot has changed since the highway was a dirt pathway through the wilderness, traveled by Native Americans migrating between villages.

But at the same time, historical consultant Leslie Pielack said, there are so many things that haven’t changed at all. In fact, we owe everything from the success of our auto industry to the placement of metro Detroit’s most popular communities to M-1, or — as early settlers called it — the Saginaw Trail.

Setting out on the journey
Pielack, the executive director of the Birmingham Museum, has consulted on historical planning projects around Oakland County for years. It’s a second career for her, having earned her first master’s degree in psychotherapy — which she still practices.

The two fields are connected in her mind because they both have to do with looking back and finding meaning in history, whether it be an old building or a troubled mind.

While she’s penned plenty of essays and contributed to historical books produced by municipalities, this is the first time she has been approached by a publisher to complete a comprehensive look at a topic in Michigan history. She was asked, and after some time she accepted the opportunity on the condition that she could keep her words focused on the people in the story instead of just the landmarks.

“I love a good story, and to me it’s the people of the Saginaw Trail that make its history so fascinating,” she said. “The first part of the book talks about those people, some well-known and some not.”

The road to a highway
Those people didn’t build the Saginaw Trail, mind you — the pathway was already there, from the Saginaw and Flint area all the way through Bloomfield Hills, Birmingham, Royal Oak, Ferndale and down to the waterfront in Detroit. The path was the best way to travel north and south since it skirted rivers and other travel hurdles. Pielack said Saginaw Chippewas enjoyed the natural resources — like lumber and agriculture — on the trail, but most importantly they used it to transport people and goods, and later Michigan settlers followed suit.

“That really hasn’t changed. (Woodward) is still a major thoroughfare for moving people and goods,” she said. “It was the best land route 10,000 years ago, and it’s still the best land route now.”

Sure, there weren’t many waterways or swamps along the trail, which is what made it so appealing. But no trip is perfect, and wet spots were still there. Just ask homeowners around Ferndale and Royal Oak.

“What was swamps in the past shows up now after rains as flooding in people’s basements. They know they’re living on what was a swamp,” Pielack said.

It’s not the road, it’s the destination
Like the famed Silk Road of the eastern world, ideas traveled along stops along the Saginaw Trail. As technologies advanced and Michigan dabbled in ways to create jobs and build an economy, the newfangled automobiles seemed like a natural fit.

“Transportation was obviously an interest for cities on the trail, and it made sense to make Detroit (a hub) of the auto industry with its water access,” Pielack explained. “But the other cities had their own place in the auto market. Flint was a General Motors town because of its history with Durant-Dort carriages, and really that’s all cars were — they were messing around with putting engines in horse-drawn carriages to see if it could be self-propelling.”

She said Saginaw soon morphed into a center for manufacturing components of vehicles built on the lines, and the parts were moved to and from automakers along the trail, which by that time had become better known as Woodward Avenue.

Oh, and around that time it was paved too.

“It was the first concrete paved road in the world,” Pielack said. “Concrete was a material in the late teens, and there (was) some money in the area by then because engineers and technology had come to the area to be a part of the auto industry. Trying to innovate, they experimented with paving Woodward from Six Mile to Seven Mile, which hadn’t been done before.”

As talent came to metro Detroit to find jobs in the booming industry, the housing market was hot. The towns along Woodward were vying to sell homes to autoworkers, and Birmingham made for a prime spot to build, since it was a central location between job opportunities in Detroit and Pontiac.

“For example, there was a development around 14 Mile and Lincoln called Eco-City, as in economy. It was a big sub that was promoted as an ideal location between the cities and small, individual tract homes were built. They were about 1,100 square feet or so, and a lot of them are still there. For many of those workers, it was the first time they had the chance to buy a home for their family, and it was convenient for them to get to and from work using the Detroit United rail.”

Life is a highway
Artifacts from that streetcar were unearthed just recently as contractors dug up a portion of Old Woodward Avenue at Maple Road for a major sewer and roadwork project.

Vic Strek, a senior engineering technician with the city of Birmingham, said workers found glass bottles and an interurban rail spike from the Detroit United Railway.

The spike was found just down the street from what’s now the Birmingham Theatre, not far from a kind of water bottle and a Nesbitt’s soda bottle, which Pielack suspects were tossed off the DUR by workers traveling to or from the plants.

In fact, the communities themselves are sort of monuments to the beginnings of the auto industry, with working-class communities neighboring Detroit and Pontiac where auto factories were located, while affluent communities like Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills were the spots where upper management figures clustered to build their dream homes.

The elite lifestyle of the Birmingham-Bloomfield community wasn’t only reflected in the square footage of homes, but in publications like Afterglow, according to Bloomfield Township Public Library Assistant Director Tera Moon. The entire collection of the magazine has been scanned to be accessed by readers on the library’s website.

“Every aspect of Afterglow — articles, photographs, ads — gives us modern-day readers a snapshot of what life was like for the folks who lived in this area in the 1920s,” she said in an email. “Its chatty tone and beautiful covers make it charming. It is incredibly informative to historians and genealogists. I’m grateful to the Bloomfield Historical Society for digitizing it and to the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library for letting them.”

The road goes ever on
Pielack released her book at the end of July, just weeks before the 24th annual Woodward Dream Cruise. The events aren’t connected — same thing with the city of Birmingham’s bicentennial celebration and the upcoming reopening of Old Woodward Avenue downtown. But the bustle happening along the corridor just showcases Pielack’s sentiment that Woodward is as important as ever.

“Everything was happening at once for the suburbs,” she said. “It was all because of the auto industry, and I don’t believe Detroit would’ve been the Motor City if it weren’t for the Saginaw Trail. It was an important component as to why it all happened in Detroit as opposed to Pittsburgh or New York.”

“The Saginaw Trail: From Native American Path to Woodward Avenue” is available for purchase at The Book Beat in Oak Park.